South Africa’s strange COVID-19 lockdown strategy puts us in a unique situation – Professor Karim

While most countries wait for the number of COVID-19 cases to go down before they ease their lockdown restrictions, South Africa is going in the opposite direction.

The country has lifted most lockdown restrictions while the number of coronavirus cases is increasing.

Professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairperson of the Health Minister’s COVID-19 advisory group, said this places South Africa in a unique position.

Instead of increasing restrictions during the growth phase of the virus to reduce its spread – like in other countries – South Africa is allowing more movement and congregations of people.

This will fuel the spread of the virus across the country as the number of COVID-19 infections is nowhere close to reaching its peak.

There is, however, some good news. “The fortunate thing is that the entire country is not being impacted at the same time,” said Karim.

The latest statistics show that 33,568 of the total number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa are in the Western Cape.

The majority of deaths – 829 of the total 1,080 – also occurred in the Western Cape. The Eastern Cape is in a distant second on 127.

The chart below, courtesy of Hydra, shows how the lockdown restrictions were eased while the number of cases increased.

Schools unlikely to have a big impact

One of the big concerns is that the recent opening of schools in South Africa will result in the rapid spread of the virus.

Karim dismissed this concern, saying they anticipate going back to school will have minimal effect on the overall COVID-19 transmission.

“We expect a few cases in schools which will occur – people will bring it from their homes or wherever they have been to. But we are not expecting it will cause any major concerns,” said Karim.

This is in line with recent comments from the World Health Organization’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove that the asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is rare.

“From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” she said.

Many young and healthy people who are infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic or only develop very mild symptoms.

This means these individuals are far less likely to spread the virus than people who develop severe symptoms.

Do not be alarmed

President Cyril Ramaphosa has recently urged the public not to be alarmed by the rapid increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa.

“As we watch the number of infections rise further – probably far faster than most of us imagined – we should be concerned, but not alarmed,” he said.

“That is because we have the ability, as individuals, communities and as a country, to limit the impact of the disease on our people.”

He said over the coming weeks, as infections continue to rise, the country should “remember that we are not helpless”.

“We should remember one simple but fundamental message: Don’t be alarmed. Be prepared,” he said.

He said the country could draw comfort from the fact that the nationwide lockdown was achieving its objective in delaying the spread of the virus.

“It gave us time to prepare our health facilities and interventions for the expected spike in infections,” Ramaphosa said.

“The lockdown was not only necessary, but it has also given us all time to adjust to living with the virus.”

Now read: More than 50,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in South Africa

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South Africa’s strange COVID-19 lockdown strategy puts us in a unique situation – Professor Karim